Will Pakistan fail?

As the floodwaters have swept down into southern Pakistan, devastating food- and cotton-producing areas, threatening dams that have held lesser tides back for many years, interrupting power generation, and displacing added millions of poor, rural Pakistanis every day, the humanitarian crisis calls for strong and swift international action. But Pakistan's friends must realize that these floods are so severe that they also raise existential questions: Can the Pakistani state and society survive this natural catastrophe?

It appears to me to be a classic, if microcosmic example of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's theory that highly improbable events may have catastrophic impacts on complex, resilient but fragile systems.

That Pakistan is an increasingly fragile and vulnerable state, in which social cohesion appears to be inexorably attenuating, seems uncontestable these days. The long list of ills that have brought Pakistan to this precarious stage are well known. It is at war with one of its own creations — the so-called Pakistani Taliban, who use indiscriminate terrorist violence to intimidate the state and society into acquiescence to the group's terrorist aims. Other extremist groups that the state also created to fight proxy wars with India are basically now beyond its control and looking to force continuation of the India fixation that has vexed Pakistani politics for so long.

Governance under elected civilian rule or when run by the military has proved hopeless. The half-illiterate society is dominated by a rigid Islamist narrative that blames the West for all its ills, and there is no alternative narrative stressing the moderate and humane tenets of mainstream Islam. The "demographic dividend," a burgeoning young population, needing a vibrant, growing economy that would create decent job opportunities, faces instead a sagging economy badly in need of reform and stabilization before sustained growth is possible. Among the many other inhibiting factors are the social development indicators, which lag sadly behind most of those in the rest of developing world.

This list of structural deficiencies is formidable and frightening, yet experts still do not agree whether Pakistan is drifting slowly, but inevitably, toward some sort of failure — or whether it can, with sustained effort by a stable civilian government over several generations, and with the help of its foreign friends, turn things around and join the ranks of modern nations. One of the more interesting questions is what, if anything, could serve as the "game changer" for good or bad, i.e. either stop the bleeding or hasten the demise.

A magic bullet that would stop the downward drift is hard to imagine, but with the army still a coherent national institution, swift collapse is equally hard to envision. Many experts believe, however, that the next five to six years are critical. At least some of the deteriorating trends must show improvement for confidence to increase. Catastrophic events of very low probability, such as the natural disaster that has now enveloped Pakistan, have not, of course, been part of the analysis. The question that now arises, as we see the floods devastating the heartland of the country, is whether its slide toward failure will now be both irretrievable and accelerated.

While the Pakistani army appears to be stumbling and confused in its response to the crushing humanitarian needs, the charity wings of Islamist organizations (some of which also have armed wings still perpetrating terrorist attacks) have been on the scene helping the stricken. While we cannot gainsay efforts from any quarter to help the millions of suffering Pakistanis, it goes without saying that such help is designed to further undermine (if that is possible) confidence and belief in the Pakistani state.

Pakistanis are among the most resilient of peoples, and even this horrible natural disaster is unlikely to cause the collapse of the state or fragmentation of the society in the near-term. But it is the not-so-near-term that should worry us. It is the medium term, when what will be required to avoid that accelerated and inevitable slide will be a concerted effort by the civilian government and the army (which remains behind the scenes the power broker in Pakistan), along with plenty of well-targeted assistance from Western nations, especially the U.S.

It is not clear how this disaster will affect the ability of the state and army to move on the reforms that are needed, especially if, in its aftermath, whatever shreds of confidence and credibility that they now possess have utterly vanished. For Pakistan's friends, the task begins with an almost-superhuman effort to get relief and succor to those millions victimized by Mother Nature. But very soon, we must get rolling on the much-heralded (in the U.S. case at least) but little-seen massive economic and social assistance programs we have talked so much about.

William B. Milam, a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C, is former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh and author of "Bangladesh and Pakistan: Flirting with Failure in South Asia." His e-mail is ----

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